The Introduction and Evolution of the 3-Point Shot in the NBA

By Andrew D

July 14, 2022

Image Courtesy of Alamy

The 3-point shot has produced some of the most exciting, shocking, and conversation-making moments in the history of the NBA.

Not many modern basketball fans would argue this point.


Sounds a bit like the team here at The Jump Hub

In this article, we will look back at the origins of the 3-point shot and its critics and detractors.

It is hard to argue that any change had more impact than the introduction of the shot-clock but the 3-point shot runs it a pretty close second.


For the uninitiated among you:


A 3-point shot in basketball is one that is released from beyond the 3-point line. Baskets that are made from within that distance are worth 2 points. Unless they are free throws when a foul is committed. In which case they are worth 1 point. Beyond that line, they are worth 3 points. 


In 1945, a game between Columbia and Fordham experimented with the introduction of a 21-foot (6.4m) line.

It was not tried again until 13 years later when the line was drawn at 23 feet (7m) between St. Francis and Siena.

An interesting anomaly was a game between Boston University and Dartmouth in 1961 where all the field goals were awarded 3-points. Unsurprisingly, this did not last…


American Basketball League commissioner Abe Saperstein felt that the sport needed an injection of excitement that he likened to a home run in baseball.

He wanted to be able to distinguish the smaller league from the NBA and saw this as an important, exciting distinction.

His arguments were taken seriously and work began on determining the distance that the line should be placed from the hoop.

The science that was used to determine how far away from the hoop the line should be is almost comically basic.

Saperstein and Ray Meyer simply took to the court, discussed where they felt the line should be, and taped it out arbitrarily at 25 feet (7.62m)


As ever, when it comes to men with money and power, there were disagreements and complications. Later in 1961, the other ABL owners voted to shorten the distance of the 3-point line to 22 feet (6.7m). Saperstein had significant power and influence as the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters. 

He didn’t appreciate the fact that they had voted in his absence, so imply ignored their decision. 

Concessions were eventually made 

He had to admit that the 25-foot line caused issues at the corners, and the line there was shortened to 22 feet!

The ABL itself did not survive much beyond this period of shenanigans and adjustments. However, the three-point rule was almost immediately adopted by the Eastern Professional Basketball League in the same year as the ABL’s demise (1963).

The American Basketball Association also decided to get in on this sweet 3-point action and brought in the same rule in its opening season (1967/’68)

CUT TO 1979

The NBA introduced a three-point line for a one-year trial. It was seen as a short-term fad by some critics and there was much consternation and bickering. Many players and coaches in the NBA did not like the introduction of the 3-point shot to the NBA. They thought it was a silly, showy shot that undermined the basic tenets of the game. 

It was primarily used in “clutch” situations 

Where all other options had been used up and time was almost over. Or when a team was losing by a significant margin and needed to catch up in a big way. 

The fact remains, however, that 3-pointers had the crowds on their feet and going wild. They were treated like slam-dunks are today and people lapped them up. Prior to the introduction of the 3-point shot, almost all of the action occurred around one or other of the hoops.

Because 2-pointers dominated the game, play was more focused on the work of the centers getting the ball into “the paint” and taller, bigger players taking short-distance shots. Most shooting was from roughly the distance of the free-throw line at or nearer.

Field goal percentage averages in the 1978/’79 season just before the 3-point line was introduced were 48.5%. This meant that 2-pointers were much more likely to be successful than 3-pointers.

While this remains true today, the numbers are a lot closer

2-point percentages are pretty similar at 49.2%, but the success of 3-point shots has risen from 28% to over 35%.

Despite the reservations of some back then, the fad stuck fast and 3-point shots were here to stay.

For lovers of historical trivia, Boston Celtics’ Chris Ford was the first NBA player to officially score a 3-pointer in October 1979.

To give an idea of how much the game has changed since, the best 3-point-shooters of the day made an average of 3 attempts per game. The best modern players might expect to make 10 attempts.

Collegiate basketball soon followed suit as the Southern Conference joined the scheme. Bizarrely, the separate conferences had different lengths in place for their 3-point line. 

It ranged from anywhere between: 

17 FEET 9 INCHES (5.4M) AND 22 FEET (6.7M)

It cannot be denied that there was an inevitable decrease in scoring as more long-shots were attempted. But that was seen as a reasonable price to pay for increased entertainment and excitement. 

Some would argue that those were also debatable but we’ll be here all day, so let’s just accept them for now.

Some tinkering with the exact distances and specifications happened over the years but the concept remained a strong if under-used tactic. As an illustration, from the 1979/’80 season until 1985/’86, the Golden State Warriors made fewer 3-point shots than Stephen Curry did in one record season!

Time and skills have changed, the 3-pointer has become a totally accepted part of the game. As players and coaches adjusted to the new option and honed their skills, the game itself changed. Training regimes needed to incorporate the new tactic and coaching strategies had a new parameter to add to the equation. From the mid-2010s, the game underwent somewhat of a revolution when a certain Stephen Curry showed just how devastating and powerful an accurate 3-point game could be.


  • NBA: 23’9” (7.24 m)

  • NCAA: 20’9” (6.32 m)

  • High/middle school: 19’9” (6.02 m)

  • WNBA: 22’2” (6.75 m)

  • FIBA (Europe): 22’2” (6.75 m)


It’s almost 40 years since the 3-point line was introduced and we have a new kid in town. The 4-pointer.

This is more than just the addition of another colored line on the basketball court. It might even necessitate an expansion of the basketball court itself. Once again new tactics and training methods would be required. It would, legitimately, require a complete transformation of the game as we know and love it. If the size and shape of your “theater of conflict” changes then you’d better believe that there will be a huge raft of other changes that go along with it.

But that doesn’t make it a bad thing…

It just makes it something that has to be considered incredibly carefully.

NBA legends like Larry Bird have spoken out in favor of its consideration and it seems that the NBA board of directors are listening.

Again we have detractors. A huge number of them, in fact. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Indiana Pacers great Reggie Miller, have warned whole-heartedly against it. They are afraid (as people were 40 years ago) that it will mean an increase in the number of low-percentage shots missing the target and diminishing the spectacle.

Should the NBA introduce a 4-point line?
You be the judge…


Basketball has always been a sport that is prepared to continuously change and evolve if it can be agreed that those changes are for the better. If tactics and strategies have to change to match the new conditions then so be it. It is refreshing in a world where some sports are quite ancient and, therefore “untouchable”, to have a sport that is prepared to make amendments and alterations for the betterment of the spectacle.

And that’s where the rub lies. With the fans. After the safety and well-being of the players, that should always be the next consideration as far as we’re concerned. And it definitely isn’t even close in some other sports we could mention. 

However, basketball’s willingness to accept and incorporate new ideas brings to mind the attitude of rugby league. Invented by the Brits, perfected by the Australians, here we have another sport that is always prepared to accept new ideas and improvements. It’s an incredibly fast-paced, brutal watch that we could not recommend more highly. Unless it clashes with the NBA of course…

Whatever arguments there are one way or another, one thing cannot be denied. The 3-point line gave NBA and other basketball fans a completely different experience than they were used to. The game became more spread out and energetic overall. The constant threat of a successful long-range shot keeps defenses on their toes and fans on the edges of their seats.

Roll on the 4-pointer…

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